January 15, 2024 - 5:40pm

Imagine sitting down for BBC News at Ten only to witness a group of masked men wielding guns and grenades take over the programme. This was the situation many Ecuadorians found themselves in last week, as gunmen stormed TC TelevisiĂłn and broadcast their hostage-taking live.

This coordinated attack was part of a campaign of violence which has brought Ecuador to the centre of international attention. The day of terror saw car bombings, arson attacks, shootings, and prison riots across the country as Ecuadorian gangs caused chaos. At least 15 people were killed in the violence. Since then, around 900 people have been arrested, with videos surfacing of the brutal treatment of alleged gang members. The streets of major cities have been empty as civilians fearfully stay inside while the military and police patrol for gangs.

The response from newly-elected President Daniel Noboa has been to designate 22 gangs as terrorist organisations and declare war, stating that Ecuador is in an “internal armed conflict”. The country is now in a two-month state of emergency, with nightly curfews and the military patrolling the streets.

The open warfare Noboa promises is similar to the declaration of El Salvadorian President Nayib Bukele, who was elected in 2019 and has taken on the gangs plaguing his country. Bukele, albeit with widespread accusations of human rights violations, won the war. With El Salvador’s mega-prisons filled, the gangs’ presence in the streets has fallen dramatically — and with it the violence and illicit drug and extortion trades they create. Gangs have been broken up, and the homicide rate has fallen from a height of 106 per 100,000 people in 2015 to just 2.4 last year, a rate significantly lower than the US. Noboa will likely try to emulate the success that has brought Bukele a national approval rating of around 90%.

Yet Ecuador’s current situation differs drastically from that of El Salvador, meaning a hardline militaristic approach may not bring the long-term success Noboa seeks. The country’s criminal networks are far more complex than El Salvador’s because of its status as an epicentre of the profitable cocaine trade. Ecuador previously had one of the lowest homicide rates in Latin America but, having become a transit hub for cocaine, this has increased ninefold since 2017.

Ecuador’s gangs exist within a network of international cartels and ex-Colombian guerrillas, and are therefore better armed and more powerful than gangs in El Salvador such as MS-13. This power was demonstrated last week, and will make the conflict tough for an already systemically corrupt military and police force.

Bukele’s programme of mass incarceration will also be hard to conduct given that Ecuador’s prisons are already overrun, and serve as a front line for violence between rival gangs. These prisons are beset with institutional corruption, allowing prominent gangsters to maintain their power inside and for large quantities of weapons to enter the prisons, thereby fuelling inter-gang violence.  

Many of the drug trafficking groups in Ecuador can be understood as prison gangs with leaders conducting business from behind bars. Hence, mass incarceration — Noboa states there are 20,000 gang members in Ecuador — in already overcrowded, decaying prisons could accelerate the carceral violence.

It is also worth noting that this plan for militarisation by Noboa is not the first in Ecuador. The country has already gone through numerous lockdowns and states of emergency — such as after the assassination of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August last year. Yet militaristic methods have thus far proven unsuccessful. 

To combat the drugs, as Noboa promised to do in his election campaign, Ecuador’s social and economic conditions which enable gangs to exist must be addressed, along with the widespread impunity and a shifting of drug trafficking routes away from the country. Ecuador’s militarised approach may offer the appearance of peace in the short term, but the endemic violence won’t end until the root causes are addressed.

Fin Carter runs Narcosis, an outlet covering drug-related news and violence.